January 22, 2013

An anonymous email forwarded to the Deadspin staff more than a week ago claimed the deceased girlfriend of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o never actually existed.

Deadspin editorial fellow Jack Dickey was immediately intrigued. During an online chat, Dickey told other staffers, “This Te’o tip is fascinating. Anybody got dibs?”

“My instinct was really just to go for it,” he said in an interview Friday night. “Given how many tips we get that don’t pan out at all, I knew, of course, there was a chance this one would be a red herring. But I figured it was something to flag just in case, because it was such a crazy thing to even imagine — and because if it was true, it would be huge.”

The subsequent report — a Deadspin team effort featuring Dickey and video/assignment editor Timothy Burke in the byline and editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs and others on the editing and steering committee — has been nothing short of “a national sensation.” On its homepage Friday, ESPN.com labeled it “one of the most bizarre sports stories of our age.”

Along with enormous Web traffic, the Deadspin scoop has led to tons of questions: How did the hoax last for so long? What did Te’o know, and when did he know it? How were so many top journalists caught so flat-footed? And how did a site branded as an outsider with limited resources — at least compared to many national sports media — piece together most of the complicated tale so quickly?

As Deadspin managing editor Tom Scocca tweeted Thursday, “Our guys — and let me be clear ‘our guys’ include a COLLEGE UNDERGRADUATE — nailed it down in five days.”

Dickey, 22, is the “COLLEGE UNDERGRADUATE” in that tweet. The senior English major at Columbia University worked nonstop on the story while finishing up his winter break at home in Connecticut.

In a phone interview Friday, Dickey shared his thoughts on how Deadspin staff broke open such a big, bizarre story — one seemingly tailor-made for an online journalism investigation.

Be open and accessible to tips — even the anonymous, crazy kind.

According to Dickey, the prominent tips@deadspin.com email has been a vital trigger for many of the site’s bigger scoops and smaller, everyday stories.

“If you’re a journalist, you should have a way for people to reach you, an easy way,” he said. “At Deadspin, we tell people to tip us. We put the tips email all over the place because we want to get tips. Sometimes you’re going to get misled, but most of the time people have good reasons for wanting to get in touch with you.”

The key with a tips forum — whether it’s an online chat room or an email or voicemail inbox — is to have it constantly monitored by key staff.

“I think that’s what surprises people about the Deadspin tips line,” said Dickey. “They assume it’s some intern whose job it is to check tips and forward the most interesting ones. But no, everyone on Deadspin gets all the tips. They are forwarded to all of our own personal emails. So we all read tips at the same time, depending on how frequently we check our email … It’s the same at all the other Gawker sites. We take tips very seriously.”

Practice “Internet journalism,” especially on an Internet story.

In an email interview published Thursday, Timothy Burke, the story’s other bylined contributor, told Poynter’s Mallary Tenore that competing news media might have missed the Te’o hoax story because they “didn’t have the tools Dickey and I did.”

I asked Dickey what tools Burke was talking about. He said they were a mix of digital and mental. In his words, “Well, first, Burke is a mad scientist. He’s a genius and has all sorts of technological skills no one else has. For this, he was doing a lot of digging, finding deleted tweets, and then tying people’s identities on Twitter to real names and finding photos of the so-called Lennay Kekua [Te’o’s alleged girlfriend] and putting a real name to that. Some of that I can do, some of it I can’t. He’s obviously far more skilled at it than I am and than anyone else on Deadspin is.”

In a photo provided by ESPN, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o pauses during an interview with the sports network on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla. ESPN says Te’o maintains he was never involved in creating the dead girlfriend hoax. He said in the off-camera interview: “When they hear the facts they’ll know. They’ll know there is no way I could be a part of this.” (AP Photo/ESPN Images, Ryan Jones)

But Dickey said it was not just search skills, but online instincts that helped the pair dive in so successfully, so fast.

“If you’re not used to doing Internet journalism, you would not be able to crack this story,” he said. “Your first instinct might not be to do really deep Googling on people. It might be, ‘OK, let me find a phone number and let me search LexisNexis,’ which we did for everyone involved in the story. But we also did as much social media digging as we could. Our story needed both those things. It needed the older media component of Nexis, the press clippings, and all of that. But it also needed the new media component of searching social networking profiles. Even though there were a lot of red herrings and dead ends in those profiles, they still gave us the keys to unlock the story.”

Even on a successful story, there will be lots of failures.

“This is sort of the funny part,” Dickey said. “For all the great things people are saying about our reporting, I personally was quite unsuccessful in trying to get anyone close to [the alleged hoax perpetrator Ronaiah Tuiasosopo] to talk. I called a lot of people and kept getting no answer or full voicemail inboxes. I think the only person I got to talk to me on the phone was his football coach for two years in high school. Although the overall reporting on the story was a success, my reporting had a lot of failure in it.”

On a larger level, as he shared about the ultimate published report, “We were trying to round out the story even more than the story we had on the website. We tried to get the Te’o family [to talk]. We tried to get anyone close to Ronaiah. We tried to get people close to the first person Ronaiah had scammed. We were mostly unsuccessful with that … It goes to show that stories like this one — even big successes for Deadspin — still do have a lot of reporters’ disappointments in the process.”

The details matter, especially when they don’t add up.

To Dickey, one of the most surprising aspects of the hoax narrative was the willingness of other journalists such as Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel to simply look past or leave out details that did not add up or that they could not track down.

As he said about Thamel’s recent accounting of his ultimately mistaken reports, “There were just so many things that didn’t check out. Rather than say ‘Wait a second, there are four or five things that don’t check out here, that really calls the whole story into question,’ he said ‘Well, these four or five details don’t check out, let’s just lose those four or five details from the story.’ … You would hope no journalist would ever make a mistake like that again, although I’m sure they will.”

Being an outsider is OK, even essential at times, to break big news.

“Every so often the mainstream media will totally goof on a story like this, and we’ll get it, and they won’t and that’s because we are outsiders,” said Dickey.

“There are other times where the dominant narrative is just the wrong one and we are in the position to hold people accountable. That’s the Deadspin motto, ‘Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion,’ which is not true by the way. We sometimes have access.  We have plenty of favors. And sometimes we have discretion. But the general gist of that — trying to do things that hold people accountable without being beholden to anybody else — I think that’s still part of our mission.”

On an unrelated note, I asked Dickey toward the end of our talk whether being on winter break was the key to his efforts, giving him time to really dig in, free of distractions. His answer: “For a story like this, I would have cut class.”

Correction: Jack Dickey is 22 years old, not 20 as this article originally stated.

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Daniel Reimold, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where he also advises The Hawk student newspaper. He maintains…
Daniel Reimold

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